As you may have read this week, we are committed to transparency at TBD. We also should admit that transparency can come across at times as self-absorbed and boasting. We’re OK with that. We prefer it to the reserve that is the culture of many news organizations.
For most of my 38 years in the newspaper business, I argued against correction policies in which we acknowledged that we had made a mistake but never told readers what the mistake was. Sometimes this was an explicit policy, something like “never repeat the error by spelling out what we wrote that was wrong.” Other times, it was a consistent and firmly enforced practice, though never spelled out. I know this because I wrote corrections that explained what the error was and what the story should have said, and they were changed again and again.
As tens of thousands of people have read online on TBD, Fark, Gawker, Huffington Post, Poynter, Regret the Error, Twitter and no doubt elsewhere, TBD’s Amanda Hess made an embarrassing typo on her blog. Her correction said it all: "This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men." It went viral and thousands of people laughed at Amanda’s error.
It so happened that even before Amanda joined our staff, Editor Erik Wemple and I had blogged about TBD’s commitment to accuracy and our corrections policy. Our commitment to accuracy is nothing unique: Thousands of editors have assured their communities and their staffs of their commitment to accuracy. But our corrections policy is different from many newsrooms. As Erik wrote in that blog post: “We will be as aggressive in correcting our mistakes as we were in making them. Each article or blog item that includes a mistake will carry highly visible correction.”
Now, Erik did give Amanda an out: "Errors than can be classified as typos will get a pass." This was, even if comical, a simple typo. But a few readers had called the typo to her attention by email and publicly on Twitter. She did the right thing and corrected it aggressively. And then it went viral.
Part of TBD’s commitment to transparency is that we blog a lot about what we are doing. This can feel and look like self-promotion, and a lot of news organizations (most newspapers I have worked for) tend not to explain themselves much to their communities, sometimes out of a modesty that resists self-promotion but sometimes out of a none-of-your-business arrogance.
We got a lot of praise, some of it admittedly from ourselves, for the transparency with which we handled the correction. But two friends, who have also praised TBD, Chris Krewson, editor of Variety.com, and John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record, liked the way we corrected the error, but not the way we “spun” the correction as a reflection of transparency:
I like and respect Chris and John and am glad they reminded us that transparency can be annoying in its own way. But I disagree with them. (I'll spare you the whole exchange of tweets from yesterday, but you can read it by checking their Twitter feeds, linked above, and mine.)
The truth is that most newsrooms would have handled this correction one of two ways:
1. Simply fix the typo and say nothing, letting a few people be amused but hoping that they hadn’t taken a screen grab that could go viral.
2. Write something like: “An earlier version of this post erred in describing the statistics about black men with HIV. The correct figure is that one in three black men who have sex with men is HIV positive.” That truly follows the formal policy or the regular practice of most news organizations where I have worked. It leaves you wondering what the mistake was: Did the original post say one in four? Maybe two in three? Maybe it didn't specify race? You simply don't know.
Chris thought it was especially overboard that Amanda went on our afternoon trends show, the "MoJo power half-hour," to discuss her correction and how it went viral. In isolation, that does indeed seem a little attention-seeking. But the simple fact is that every day, anchor Morris Jones is out in the newsroom asking our community engagement staff what people are talking about online. Sometimes we send a staff member on the show to talk about something we are doing, such as seeking new names for Metro stations or asking about Halloween costumes and customs. Sometimes we steer him toward other people’s work that is getting some viral interest, such as the Metro rap video. When something was getting as much attention as Amanda’s correction was getting, we would have been making an exception to not discuss that on MoJo’s show.
We also had an internal issue with our staff. However well someone appears to be handling an embarrassing situation, you don’t know how that person is internalizing the error and the attention. And you have to consider what the rest of the staff is thinking as they watch how an embarrassing error is handled. If we just handled the error in silence, leaving Amanda to twist in the wind, how likely are other staff members going to be to correct as aggressively? Much better to praise her (and us) for our transparency, even if that means we appear to be boasting and spinning a typo.
In a comment on the Poynter piece about Amanda’s correction, Richard Prince, Journal-isms blogger for the Maynard Institute, raised a valid point that the correction exposed our lack of copy editing at TBD. However, he said we had set up a "false choice between having copy editors and having reporters."
Richard was absolutely right that our decision not to hire copy editors raises the likelihood that errors like this typo would slip through (though, as I noted in a response, newspapers with copy desks have been making embarrassing typographical errors for my whole career and longer). However, I strongly disagree with his suggestion that this was a "false choice." Whether you are a startup or a long-established news organization, every staff position is a real choice of how to spend that money, and the staff positions are finite. Copy editors have value and perhaps we should have some copy editors. But every decision to add a copy editor is a decision not to use that position as a reporter or visual journalist (or whatever), and vice versa. That is the essence of newsroom staffing decisions.
The discussion started by Richard's comment is a good one. Copy editing has value and I hope TBD's news staff grows to the point where we can add copy editors, because that will mean our business has been successful.
In the meantime, we will continue expecting our reporters to get their facts right without copy editors checking their work (we do have editors and they do edit some stories before they post, and after posting, but we don't have a copy desk). And we'll continue discussing our operation pretty openly, accepting both the praise for our transparency and a few lumps for our spin.